The Lighthouse is a film I’ve wanted to see now for a good long while. After premiering at Cannes last Spring, it immediately made headlines as a dazzling second feature from Writer-Director Robert Eggers, whose debut The Witch established him as one to watch in the horror genre, alongside others like Jordan Peele and Ari Aster. But until now, luck was not on my side. Despite being released in the UK a month ago, no cinema near me was showing the film. But fear not, I have now witnessed The Lighthouse, and whew, what a wild ride!
Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) and Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) are beginning four weeks on duty at a lighthouse off the coast of New England in the 1890s. Winslow is the quiet wickie, under the supervision of Wake’s tyrannical keeper. It’s a clash of personalities against the backdrop of isolation and frequent stormy weather. Both men hold secrets from their past and deceive the other, and from the outset, it’s clear that Eggers frames the film around an inevitable conflict. The result is nightmare of dizzying proportions, a fever dream of rage and Melville-esque monologuing, and a riveting picture.
Intimacy and intensity define the film, both in its narrative and aesthetic. Shot in black and white, using a square 1.19:1 aspect ratio in order to mimic 19th century photography, the audience are faced with a noticeably narrower screen, facilitating the claustrophobic setting and secretive characters. It’s a disorientating watch, deliberately so, and Dafoe and Pattinson deliver often muffled dialogue, frequently with a cigarette or pipe in their mouth. Their faces are covered in blood, mud, and more often darkness, and in all, the audience are challenged to fulfil basic sensory functions when watching the film. Eyes and ears are indeed assaulted, but it’s completely exhilarating.
Much praise has been given to Willem Dafoe for his performance, and it’s certainly worthy. He is titanically good as the unhinged wake, delivering frequent monologues ranging from the quality of his lobster dinners to the existence of sea gods and monsters. Donning a fabulous beard and dominating the screen, he is truly towering and deserved of the attention. Yet I was equally impressed by Robert Pattinson who has definitively never been better. Often quieter than the booming Wake, Winslow seethes with a sinister rage that will inevitably explode. While Dafoe is let loose to shout and scream, Pattinson often has to take the more restrained and calculated approach. The dichotomy between the two characters are relished by the actors, whose work will no doubt be analysed in the coming years.
But even with the superlative acting on show, the film exists on a deliciously tense knife edge between the sublime and the ridiculous throughout, and only manages to remain the former due to stunning technical control. The movie simply wouldn’t work without its dynamic visuals. The narrow aspect ratio and black and white are essential components of the its success, and if it were shot in regular frame and in colour, it would quite possibly be laughable. The film is a manifesto for importance of technical craftsmanship. DP Jarin Blaschke (who previously worked with Eggers on The Witch) expertly utilises the unconventional images, and plays with darkness so exquisitely that shots almost bleed into the surroundings, leaving the gaunt faces of Pattinson and Dafoe terrifyingly centre screen. The sound work is also exemplary, exploiting echoes and stormy weather to consistently ooze atmosphere. Mark Korven’s oppressive score is jarring yet beautiful, old-fashioned yet modern in its consistent use of dissonances, and in all, the technical work truly comes together to form a virtuosic piece from all involved.
The Lighthouse is not something I shall soon forget. As it descends more and more into complete and utter chaos, I couldn’t help but feel the film crash into me like a wave, it’s multiple meanings and allegories hypnotic yet frustrating in equal measure. Every line of dialogue and scene has numerous interpretations, exploring themes of identity, guilt, madness and isolation. It’s a masterclass of beautiful ambiguity, and one of the best films of the last year.
10/10: A modern masterpiece that doesn’t put a foot wrong, The Lighthouse is a confident second feature from Robert Eggers, that makes a case like no other for the importance of every aspect of filmmaking, from superlative acting to pitch perfect technical work.